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Forgotten Victorian

Why the best of Gissing is worth rereading.

Jun 20, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 38 • By JONATHAN LEAF
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These weaknesses do not, however, affect his best book, New Grub Street, which is among the finest novels not only of the Victorian age but in all literature. Skillfully plotted, it does not rely on cheap villains, and its tragedy arises organically. The subject is the world of struggling journalists and writers, and for once Gissing writes with a sympathy as large as his objectivity and frankness. Every detail of the parlors and garrets of the book’s characters is realized, and they have the tragic complexity—the alternating mix of hope, longing, and despair—of the figures of Turgenev and Chekhov. The hero Edwin Reardon, an impoverished author of literary fiction, is not entirely autobiographical; but we cannot but sense that his struggles must parallel the author’s. Although its style is always graceful and sometimes beautiful, its elegance notwithstanding, it is a novel written in blood. The only criticism to be made is that the dialogue is consciously literary—a choice Gissing obviously made in the aim of producing a faster, easier-to-read story.   

Gissing’s penultimate novel, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, is the one that he believed would be most likely to be remembered; and it was, in fact, a significant success upon its publication in 1903, the same year of his premature death from emphysema. Though The Private Papers affects to deal with a fictional character, what it is really offering is Gissing’s own opinions and nature-loving observations. Composed of four parts, it provides lyrical responses to each season of the year, writing as lovely as can be found in English prose. This, for example, is his description of a warm February:

The early coming of Spring in this happy Devon gladdens my heart. I think with chill discomfort of those parts of England where the primrose shivers beneath a sky of threat rather than of solace. Honest winter, snow-clad and with the frosted beard, I can welcome not uncordially; but that long deferment of the calendar’s promise, that weeping gloom of March and April, that bitter blast outraging the honour of May—how often has it robbed me of heart and hope. .  .  . I have been thinking of those early years of mine in London, when the seasons passed over me unobserved, when I seldom turned a glance towards the heavens, and felt no hardship in the imprisonment of boundless streets. It is strange now to remember that for some six or seven years I never looked upon a meadow, never travelled even so far as to the tree-bordered suburbs.

Academics have tended to ignore Gissing because he was politically conservative, and in books like his 1886 novel Demos: A Story of English Socialism, he openly mocks and satirizes leftists. 

The scandal is not that George Gissing is totally forgotten; he is not, and his books remain in print. The scandal is that a writer who could produce at least one novel filled with moments as acute as the finest scenes of Eliot, and as affecting as the greatest passages in Dickens, is only occasionally mentioned and rarely read. At a time when a general reassessment of the Victorian novel is upon us, might he be a man to whom we ought to look?

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright living in New York.

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